More solicitors should be appointed to senior judicial posts, ending the traditional bias in favour of barristers, according to Britain’s most senior female judge.
Speaking at a press conference to mark the start of the legal year, the deputy president of the Supreme Court Lady Hale also called for more women and ethnic minority lawyers to be appointed to make the bench more reflective of society as a whole.
Hale said she is ‘flattered and proud’ to be the first woman in the Supreme Court, but ‘disappointed’ that in the 10 years since her appointment to its predecessor the House of Lords, not one of the 13 new judges was a woman.
The situation is improving in the lower ranks of the judiciary but not in the Supreme Court, she said, where the need for diversity is all the more important.
Suggesting that men choose other men of the same ethnicity and professional background to become judges in a selection process ‘dominated by men’, Hale said: ‘It’s not impossible to speculate that it is always easier to perceive merit in those who are like you.’
She cited two principal causes for the lack of diversity on the bench – the division of the legal profession into barristers and solicitors, coupled with the fact that only top barristers have traditionally been seen to have the merit to be top judges.
‘I’m not saying there should be a fused profession, but we could look much more broadly from the top calibre of lawyers to be members,’ she said.
Hale added: ‘I look forward to a more diverse future eventually, but hopefully before I retire.’
During the press conference, the president of the court Lord Neuberger reiterated concerns over government plans to restrict legal aid for certain areas of law, in particular judicial review.
Neuberger said that legal aid ensures the most vulnerable in society get a proper hearing where they need to. ‘Rights are valueless if they can’t be enforced in court,’ he said.
Without public funding, Neuberger said, a person will be left with two choices – not going to court, which is a ‘fundamental denial’ of their right; or going to court unrepresented, which he said would be ‘unfair’ if the other side were represented, as well as frightening.
He warned that an increase in the number of litigants in person will clog up the courts.
Neuberger, who has been in post for a year, said he had feared the Supreme Court would make the country’s highest appellate court more ‘proactive and political or like the US Supreme Court’, but he said that had not happened.
The judges, he said, remain the ‘lions under the throne’.